Change They Can Believe In?

Seismic Shifts in Indian Politics

I made my first-ever campaign contribution to an Indian candidate in the recent national elections here—the world’s biggest: more than 417 million ballots were cast. Pradeep Tamta of the Congress party was contesting from the Himalayan town of Almora. My husband assured me Pradeep was “one of us.”

Although as a noncitizen I cannot vote, like any resident of India I have a compelling interest in who gets elected. I wanted to help ensure that my concerns became part of the national debate. This election, I had a lot of company.

The Congress Party’s smashing victory took even the most astute political observers by surprise. Although the party had gone into the elections as the ruling party, it had done so only because it had cobbled together a coalition of smaller parties whose support it needed to make up the majority. Obviously, this encouraged instability, and its five-year rule had been somewhat ineffective. So why would the public reelect the party, not to mention give it a resounding mandate?

Many things have changed in the sixty years since India gained independence. Education has slowly penetrated to the farthest regions of the country and, in the past ten years, communication technology has made dramatic strides. When I came here in 1981, there was only one television channel and telephones were almost unobtainable. Now everyone, from the subzi-wallah (vegetable seller) to the rickshaw driver, carries a cell phone; satellite radio is widely available; and most homes, even in the slums, have cable television.

Politicians can no longer win by just visiting villages and handing out saris or sacks of rice. There is more accountability and a rising sense of sophistication on the part of the average person. The recently passed Right to Information Act has given people a further sense of access and empowerment.

Different groups have different interests, of course; and, increasingly, they are able to get a clearer perspective on which party is more likely to deliver in a particular area. For the past two dec­ades this fueled the precipitous rise of the narrowly defined regional and caste-based parties, including the once wildly popular Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).

The BJP’s stunning defeat in these elections (it won only 116 of the Parliament’s 543 available seats, its worst performance in two decades) may be the beginning of a rejection of the narrow and divisive politics that has been the rule here for the past twenty years. For voters now seem to perceive that the issues that actually matter are food, water, education, and health care. It isn’t surprising that the BJP—whose main platform was that Hindus are better than Muslims—couldn’t last forever.

But it wasn’t only the BJP that fared badly this time out. Other “nondeliverers”—the Communist parties in Bengal and Kerala, states that have been theirs for years—were also rejected by voters. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the Bahujan Samaj party also fell from grace—quite spectacularly, considering that its leader, a toweringly arrogant woman named Mayawati Kumari, had hopes of brokering a deal to become prime minister. Like the BJP, Mayawati’s naked ambition and desire for power undid her. A Dalit by caste (one of the “untouchables”), she had the most loyal constituency in the country at one time. Her meteoric rise to power was unfathomable to many: she was noted for her crude body language, vulgar way of speaking, and violent strong-arm tactics.

But for many Dalits, Mayawati’s “in-your-face” approach added to her appeal. According to Dunu Roy, an activist and longtime observer of Indian politics, the crudeness others see is actually seen by the Dalit as “a riposte to the finesse of the Brahmin.” Considering the centuries of feudal bondage in which the Dalits have lived, this makes sense. Roy adds that Dalit loyalty to Mayawati was unquestioning “as long as they thought she was making space for their assertion, and that eventually she was going to deliver the goods.”

Mayawati had other plans, all involving herself. On a recent trip to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, I was astonished by the massive statues of her that were being built everywhere. To herald them, enormous billboards were all over the city featuring full-length pictures of her, accompanied by yards and yards of Hindi text too small to be read. The message was unmistakable: All that mattered was Mayawati. When it became clear that she would take up with anyone, including Brahmins, to advance her ambition, Mayawati’s once-loyal followers abandoned her without a backward glance.

In the end, that’s what’s happening in India. The people are speaking, and they will give their support to those candidates and parties they believe are listening. This time around, it was the Congress party. Clearly, the Gandhi family retains its charisma, and Manmohan Singh is the first prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to be reappointed after a full five-year term. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to complacency. Listening is one thing, delivering is quite another, and the Indian electorate, getting savvier with each election cycle, isn’t in a mood to be dallied with.

Neither am I. Pradeep Tamta, my candidate from Almora, won his election. I plan to go and meet him with my list of concerns about disability, education, and the environment. I’ve learned something from the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh. He may be “one of us,” but, as Eliza Doolittle would say, “Show me!”

About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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